After all, Valentine’s Day is another day

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Valentine’s Day, while started out as a liturgical celebration for a Christian saint, has become a universal day of celebration of love in countries all over the world, Christian as well as non-Christian. In most countries, it is recognized as a special day for lovers as they express and confirm their love for each other by exchanging cards, flowers, or sweets. In Japan, however, which is a non-Christian country with the number of Christians comprising two percent of the population at the most, Valentine’s Day has become the day when females can openly express their love for their male friends without fear of inviting social criticism for being too aggressive in expressing their personal feelings. To make things equal between the sexes, the Japanese have invented White Day, which falls on March 14, as the day when males can openly express their love for their female friends by sending chocolates—preferably white chocolates—to them from whom they had received the gift of love a month earlier on February 14.

The issue of who invented the custom of White Day in Japan and for what reason is not firmly settled and still being debated. It would be nice if it had been invented expressly for males as their Valentine’s Day, for it would give an opportunity for them, especially for those who are naturally shy and timid, to openly declare their love to their female friends. Some cynics say, however, that the idea of White Day actually came from some enterprising merchants who wanted to increase their sales of chocolates and other sweet products. If that had been the case, White Day would carry less significance as another special day for lovers to express and confirm their love for each other. It would instead become a day to confirm love of money on the part of chocolate makers. Be that as it may, the custom of White Day, now widely observed in Japan, offers an interesting example of the way a certain custom developed in one culture goes through transformation as it is adopted and absorbed by another culture.

Love of money, or the profit motive, although widely embraced as the motive behind economic transactions all over the world in the age of global capitalism, does not mean that money is the only object of love. Indeed, there are all kinds of things that become objects of love, things which people become passionate about, such as beauty, country, food, liberty, music, reading, sports, wine, work, and so on. And, of course, there is love of knowledge, which drives philosophers and scientists to seek knowledge of the world around us. If objects of love are many, so are adjectives used to describe love: blind love, eternal love, secret love, sweet love, true love, unrequited love, and so on. And there is unconditional love, an adjective usually reserved as a special reference to Jesus’ love for mankind.

Indeed, Christianity is one religion that has elevated love as a supreme goal for its practitioners, as is typified by Jesus’ message: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Love Jesus is talking about here is not love in the usual sense of that word as affection or passion between two individuals. It is love of mankind, the kind of love that is extended to all human beings, which Plato and Greek philosophers called agape, or “universal love”, to distinguish it from eros, or “bodily love” and phila, or “brotherly love”.

Love is also important for Buddhist practitioners. In Buddhism, however, love of all human beings is not enough: Love must be extended to all living beings, to all things endowed with the Buddha-nature. Moreover, this love, or metta, which is usually translated as “loving-kindness”, is one form of practice, one of the four meditations called brahmavihara, the other three being: karuna, or “compassion”, mudita, or “altruistic joy”, and upekkha, or “equanimity”.

The word brahmavihara literally means “Brahma’s abode”, which is also translated as “divine abodes”. Brahma’s name is employed by the Buddha to characterize the four meditations because, as is recorded in Subha Sutta, he is responding to a question put to him by the Brahman student Subha. The Buddha recommends the four meditations to Subha if he is to find the path to the divine abodes to be in the company of Brahma: “What, student, is the path to the company of Brahma? Here a monk dwells pervading one quarter with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, … one quarter with a mind imbued with compassion, … one quarter with a mind imbued with altruistic joy, … one quarter with a mind imbued with equanimity, …” (Majjhima Nikaya 99)

Whether we are declaring our first love, or confirming our old love, on Valentine’s Day, we are expressing our attachment to someone special as the object of our love as passion by sending cards, flowers, or sweets. Let us remind ourselves, however, that there is no such thing as eternal love, for love, like everything else in the world around us, is impermanent and subject to suffering. As the Buddha reminds us in his first discourse he delivered in the Deer Park at Isipatana, “separation from what is pleasing is suffering”. (Samyutta Nikaya 56) What we need to remind ourselves as Buddhist practitioners on Valentine’s Day is not just love as passion but love as practice, namely, the need to constantly practice meditations to cultivate metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha so that we, too, can reach brahmavihara. After all—to paraphrase the memorable, closing words of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind—Valentine’s Day is another day … for Buddhist practitioners.